After watching the first season of “Homeland,” it can be surreal to speak to Navid Negahban over the phone. His performance as Osama Bin Ladin archetype Abu Nazir is both memorably ominous while embodying the shifting sense the Showtime drama gives viewers of complicated villains that could’ve easily been pigeonholed as generic bad guys. That complexity has earned “Homeland” serious acclaim — it’s one of six shows nominated for an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, all of which happen to be from non-traditional broadcast channels. While Negahban isn’t on the list of nominees, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him there next year as he joins the permanent cast for “Homeland” in season two, which premieres on Sunday, September 30th (check out the first 20 minutes online).
Over the phone, Negahban isn’t one to ask we try to blow up the Vice President or to remind us to stick to the plan. In fact, between the pitfalls of AT&T’s notorious coverage, Skype and a second phone, speaking with Negahban is a lot harder than “Homeland” makes those international calls appear. Still, Naegahban shared his opinions with Indiewire on his complicated role, waiting out the current hiatus of filming season two and audiences growing to accept morally gray characters.
How does it feel to be the boogeyman?
[Laughs] It feels very good in some cases, actually. It depends on how you look at it. But come now, talk to me. How are you doing with Fashion Week? It must be crazy.
It’s fun for me since it overlaps with the press screenings for the New York Film Festival and we get to pretend we’re with the beautiful people. But let’s go back into Abu [Nazir] and how when you first got the character. What were your thoughts on building him up?
I’m very lucky. I read the script and then I met Howard Gordon at a book reading for a friend of mine. When he was done I approached him and told him I loved the script and asked who was playing Abu. He said he was still thinking and I said what about me? That’s how it happened — Howard set up a meeting with Alex [Gansa] and we talked about the character.
Why do I want to play him? All three of us agreed that the character was just a man dealing with circumstances and the way he is reacting to what is happening to him. I love the character because he’s so multi-layered and fascinating. It’s not a typical bad guy. What the show and the creative team are giving us is a blank slate that all the characters are very even — there’s good and bad in each of them, and you can find a villain or a hero in that.
That’s what I find fascinating in that over the years, this type of character has gone from being a token villain of the week to progressing with roles of terror or military-themed characters. Are you noticing that as an actor?
I think what’s happening is the shows are becoming more sophisticated. They’re not just trying to have a villain character without introducing him or saying who he is. Right now, for example, it’s very tricky. We are trying to get to know the other side while, at the same time, not investing the time to get to know them.
What’s good about [Homeland] is it’s not just showing the villain, but showing the reasons he changes and allowing the audiences to think for themselves while raising the question. One of the greatest experiences that I had while shooting in Israel, I was at the coffee shop and someone approached me and said, “Oh, you’re Abu Nazir!” I said yes. He said, “I want to tell you we have never seen the other side.”
Basically, what he was saying was the show was showing them different layers and aspects of the other side of the Middle East. To me, it was a great compliment. It’s very tricky to stay open-minded when we’re looking at the different situations, respecting death and the journey of what has happened to him. That we are where we are.
I think, over time, audiences, readers and casual viewers have learned more about what is happening internationally. You can’t perceive it as black and white anymore. But let’s get a little lighter: congratulations on the Emmy nod.
Thanks. It’s very exciting. This year’s going to be a tough year.
It’s also a first for drama — there’s nothing from major network brands.
I think one of those reasons is we have more freedom. Cable gives us more freedom to explore ideas and go deeper into them. It’s just like how indie films used to be and some still are, exploring areas no one else has ever explored. I think shows are becoming more sophisticated.
Are you wrapped on season two yet?
Not yet — we’re on hiatus due to the Democratic National Convention. We have four more episodes to go.
So, with the expanded role, Abu Nazir gets to show up more than in flashbacks and occasional phone calls?
Yes and no. It’s very tricky — I don’t know how much I can tell you. You’ll see more of how his web is spread about, his connections and influences. It’s getting deeper into the connections of how we get to know him. He’s definitely being kept mysterious, but it’s more about his impact on the environment.
There’s also the nurture/nature that Nazir has with Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). How do you work on that aspect as Brody’s role changes and Nazir’s is growing?
It’s very easy to work with Damian. He’s really invested in his character. It’s amazing. He went and studied Islam because he wanted to know what the character is about. He’s a giver. When you work with him, the moment they are locking eyes with each other it takes us away from the set.
Even the way their relationship was established — until the pilot, we had an idea who the characters are. But the moment that he’s breaking down at the end of the pilot and I’m picking him up — that wasn’t in the script. The lines are there, but some of the motions are improvised. That’s the way that we behaved because we were in the moment — when I took him into my arms and put his head on my shoulder, that was the moment I think Abu was born.
It was so powerful they kept rolling the camera and going forward. Even on set we created a genuine, strong bond. I really like working with him. He’s amazing. It’s like two kids are playing and we react to whatever happens.